True faith does not bully: An open letter to church leaders regarding LGBTQ Youth
Dear Church Leaders,
Over the past two decades I’ve been a pastor to students. It has been the greatest joy of my life to be allowed into the trenches of young people’s lives: to have access to their stories and share proximity to their pain. I’ve sat with and listened to thousands of LGBTQ young people, and I’ve had a front row seat to the violence the Church has manufactured and to the depression, self-harm, and isolation it breeds.
It’s the thing that grieves me, perhaps more than anything else I encounter in this work: that vast resources and energy are expended by Christians continually fighting a battle that bears no redemptive fruit, that actually exacerbates people’s marginalization, that generates unnecessary pain—a war that Jesus isn’t asking us to wage in the first place.
In the totality of the Gospels, Jesus never once condemns or reprimands or excludes anyone for their gender identity or sexual orientation, and every day I mourn the way Christianity is putting LGBTQ people through undue suffering, the callousness of the hearts of so many of those who claim Jesus, and the excuses we make for doing everything but what Jesus actually called us to do: love in a way that emulates him.
When my son was a toddler, rather than telling him I loved him, I began asking him a question: “Who loves you?” — to which he would reply with a beaming smile and great exuberance: “Daddy!” And I’d applaud and say, “Yeah he does!”
Yes, the question was playfully rhetorical, but rather than just expressing my love for him and assuming it wasn’t lost in translation, I wanted to make sure he felt loved by me, to know he was receiving what I intended to give him.
I don’t think Christians do that often enough with the LGBTQ community. We don’t simply listen. We tell people they’re wrong to feel what they feel, instead of wondering if us making them feel that way is actually the most critical spiritual issue. Love is fundamentally relational, and we can’t evaluate our actions simply by our declarations that we are loving or by our intentions to be loving—but by the experience of those on the receiving end of our actions (Do people feel loved by me, and if they don’t, specifically why don’t they?). I can tell you that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender human beings do not feel loved by you.
Earlier this year, I received an email similar to one I received hundreds of times a year. It was from a man I’ve never met or spoken to before. The names and particulars of these messages vary, but the thru line is constant: ostracism, self-hatred, and fear of a supposedly loving God — all provided by hateful Christians. He wrote:
I am conflicted. I am a gay, black male and only seek God’s love, grace and mercy. I am surrounded by a group of people who preach the traditional Baptist teaching of hellfire and brimstone. I am daily trying to seek God’s love and grace, yet I feel that, because I am gay, I am not worthy and will never prosper. Am I not deserving of happiness? Am I so wrong for being gay? I believe that God makes us who we are, but Christian people tell me that I am choosing this path. What choice? If all is set before my conception, then what choice do I have? What am I to do, if God knows my moves before I make them? God knows the outcome. Where is the truth in this? Religion has me broken and I am on an uncertain road. Can you provide any words or advice? Does God truly love me? Am I to fall under the word of people claiming they are prophets, ministers, seers of God—or am I just damned completely?
I’m not going to tell you how to respond theologically to this man and his questions, because in many ways, your theology is irrelevant—aside from a working apologetic of empathy that emulates Jesus and recognizes another person’s pain and is burdened to bring comfort.
Regardless of what you believe about gender identity or sexual orientation, I’m asking you to consider the suffering of this man and multitudes like him, the feelings of condemnation they carry, the prevalent fear of God they live with, and then decide how Love would have you respond—to him, and to millions of similarly wounded people who pass you on the street, serve you at restaurants, stand behind you in the checkout line, fill your social media timeline—and attend your churches.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us in Chapter 9, that Jesus “saw the crowds and had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” He saw their internal condition, what the world was doing to them, how they were affected by this life, the collateral damage caused by other people—and he was moved to bring comfort and rest and wholeness. I’m asking you to consider what you are doing to already harassed and helpless LGBTQ children in your path.
If you’re using the Bible to proof-text yourself into feeling justified for discriminating against someone else — you’re probably doing religion and the Bible wrong — and you’re definitely doing Love wrong. I believe you want to get Love right, and that’s why I’m asking you to consider all of this.
Jesus commanded you to love people as you desire to be loved. As you desire to be loved. I wonder how you and your families desire to be loved?
I imagine you desire to be loved, by being seen as a complex human being with dignity and worth. I imagine you desire to be loved, by being allowed to be the most qualified person to tell your story and share what it’s like to be inside your skin. I imagine you desire to be loved, by having your journey respected as yours alone. I imagine you desire to be loved, by being able to choose the person you spend your life loving and how you show affection and find companionship. I imagine you desire to be loved, by being allowed to live.
In light of this, I’m asking you to prayerfully ask whether you’re truly loving LGBTQ human beings that way.
They are trying to live, work, raise families, worship, and love in peace—and currently you are manufacturing turbulence. They, like you, are doing their best to make their way through this painful, difficult, exhausting life, and you are making it all much more painful, difficult, and exhausting. You are a source of grief, a creator of pain, and a doer of damage, and there is nothing redemptive or God-honoring in it. You are wasting your fleeting daylight here on wars Jesus didn’t ask you to wage, you’re squandering relationships you could be nurturing, and you’re irreparably injuring people made in the image of God.
If that’s what you want to be doing, that is your right. But if it’s not, if you are truly burdened to love all humanity in a way that resembles Jesus, I’m asking you to change. May you have wineskin minds and hearts soft enough and a God big enough to do that. True faith doesn’t bully.
Peace to you.
Harry Quan and Jameson Mallari Atenta
The original version of this Op Ed was published on johnpavlovitz.com
John Pavlovitz launched an online ministry to help connect people who want community, encouragement, and to grow spiritually. Individuals who want to support his work can sponsor his mission on Patreon, and help the very real pastoral missionary expand its impact in the world.